Max Wooldridge conquers the white waters and rich culture of Ontario's Middle Madawaska River

Who says North America doesn't do irony? Canada does for sure. The world's largest collection of paddled watercraft is located in an old outboard motor factory.

My canoe adventure starts here, at Peterborough's Canadian Canoe Museum. It showcases the vital role the canoe has played in Ontario's history, initially for the First Nations, then the fur trade, right up to today.

Photographs and paintings of canoeists adorn the museum walls. And it's these inspiring images that have brought me here. With a canoe you delve deep into the Canadian psyche, and the indomitable spirit of adventure, and freedom, it represents.

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The ribs of a freight canoe at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Photo / Edna Winti
The ribs of a freight canoe at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Photo / Edna Winti

I've come to immerse myself in Ontario's rich canoe culture, and learn how to paddle properly.

More so than locomotive trains, wagons or steamships, it was large fur-trade canoes that opened up Canada's frontiers.

Museum curator Jeremy Ward says these canoes are hugely significant to Canadian culture and heritage.

"Canada's fur-trade period was the first industry based upon cultural interaction between native people and non-native people," he says.

"English, Scots, French Canadian and Metis voyageurs and native people all worked together."

We see a fine example of a birch bark canoe. First Nations people made them by cutting large slabs of birch tree bark and binding it with spruce root. Tree sap was used to plug any holes.

Next, a "courting canoe" from the early 20th century — a well-preserved watercraft with a phonograph in the middle for couples taking to the water. The word canoodling seems invented for this vessel.

It's soon time to join a paddle-carving workshop. Museum visitors can make their own from a single piece of wood. We measure and mark up pieces of soft bass wood with a pencil and ruler. Then, astride a shave horse, I fine-tune my paddle with a spokeshave, carefully carving the shaft, blade and grip.

The logo of the Canadian Canoe Museum.
The logo of the Canadian Canoe Museum.

Three hours later, and after much sanding, my handiwork lies proudly before me: a smooth, 60cm mini-paddle. It will fit nicely in my luggage, the best souvenir all week.

Next morning, it's a two-hour drive north to Madawaska Kanu Centre in Barry's Bay.

There's a summer-camp feel here — probably because young Canucks have been learning to paddle here since 1972.

Following our experienced water guide, we carry two-man fibreglass canoes down to the water's edge.

Soon I am trailing a hand through the warm tranquil water of nearby Mud Bay. The rhythmic splash of our paddles is mesmeric.

It's the end of September. The lakeside trees are aglow with auburn and golden leaves. On the riverbank, a large blue heron swoops low.

Mud Bay is flat and shallow, ideal for learning to canoe. We learn the basic paddle strokes in a sheltered inlet before we head out into the bay.

We are shown how to draw, pry and drag, to control the canoe. How to move our core rather than use solely our arms.

We practise newly-learned stroke sequences but are scuppered when the wind picks up.

We're soon spinning slowly around. There's not much to do except float where the wind takes us.

We return to camp and the welcoming scent of woodsmoke. After dinner, the temperature drops so we gather around a campfire.

We sleep in rustic cabins. It is quiet in the woods except for some nebulous nocturnal noises.

For the next two days, home is the fast-moving Middle Madawaska River. It flows through a forest of pines and hardwoods with sections of rapids, white water and eddys.

The thrilling white-water sections will be savoured for a long time.

A chipmunk darts under our feet as we put on our wetsuits, helmets and life jackets.

An HBC birchbark canoe at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Photo / Edna Winti
An HBC birchbark canoe at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Photo / Edna Winti

At the river's edge, I'm shivering. I'm not sure whether it's from the cold or apprehension.

Finally there's advice in case we fall in: keep our heads up and feet facing downstream, then wait for the splash of a rescue rope nearby.

In Mud Bay we sat on seats. Now our thighs are strapped to the canoe so we use our whole body to steer.

Afterwards, it's only my core that's a little sore. Maybe I've been canoeing right after all. I still can't quite believe I didn't capsize.

I am still paddling on the flight home, if only in my mind. My Ontario canoe adventure has given me a real taste for back-country canoeing. And it's got me thinking about more than what to paint on my treasured mini-paddle.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand operates non-stop services to Vancouver from Auckland, with code-share connections available across Canada. Fares to Vancouver are on sale, with $500 off return Economy Class fares and $1000 off return Premium Economy and Business Premier fares. Sales end August 7.

Further information:

The Canadian Canoe Museum
The Madawaska Kanu Centre